It started at Chartres. I was on UN leave from Cyprus and roaming around Paris with my soon-to-be bride. We had time for one trip out of the city and the choices were Versailles and Chartres. I knew nothing about Chartres but Lynn was keen and it seemed a bit more appealing than wandering around a big formal garden. Besides I had scoped out a promising restaurant in Chartres so I reckoned on a quick look around the church, a glass of rosé in the square, and then dinner at the Henri IV.
As I had expected Chartres turned out to be a big and very impressive church, but not the first one I had seen. At Lynn’s insistence we purchased a guide book and began working our way around, starting with the portals.(1) All the decoration of a church has meaning, so our task was to decode it. First, who do these statues represent? Saints most likely (absence of crowns and weapons rules out kings). Which ones? It depends on how they are represented. The guy without his head is probably St Denis, who was (a) French, and (b) martyred by decapitation. The lady with the wheel is St Catharine (broken on a wheel). And so on. What about the people in the bands of images above the portal (archivolts). Who are they? Well this group has twelve statues, so they could be apostles, kings of Jerusalem or minor prophets. Hmm. No guy with keys (St Peter), no obvious kingly panoply, lots of long beards so perhaps minor prophets? This group has four statues, so they could be the four evangelists, or perhaps the major old testament prophets. Do they have books or scrolls? Books it is, so they are evangelists. Find their individual symbols and you know which is which. Once we have it puzzled out, on to the next feature.
This decoding challenge proved to be oddly compelling. Iconography – the depiction of saints and biblical scenes in a standard way – was essential in an age when most people could not read. But even parts of the cathedral only frequented by priests tended to feature the same sort of imagery. People of the medieval era apparently meaningful preferred symbols over text, a tendency that we may find hard to understand 😉 For the modern visitor a large part of the interest is in puzzling out what the portals are trying to tell us, who the various saints are, and what historical events and people were important at the time the church was built.
And of course they are magnificent structures in their own right with soaring ceilings, brilliant stained glass, fine artwork and eccentrically decorated chapels. I realize this sounds extraordinarily geeky but we were hooked by the whole experience. And after almost five hours at the cathedral we did have a great meal at Henri IV.
To me appeal of these buildings is not religious. The people who built them may well have been convinced of the need to glorify God, but God did not build them. People conceived them; designed them; organized the massive logistical effort needed to source the materials, and find, feed, house and pay the workers. Tradesmen quarried and transported the stone, masons built the structure, and skilled artisans carved the innumerable statues and decorations. For hundreds of years the finest artists in the Western world made their living painting religious scenes for the altars and chapels and creating beautiful wood carving and metalwork to decorate the choirs, pulpits and furnishings. All of this happened before there were steam engines, long distance communications or banks, much less any way of calculating the strengths of materials or the load bearing capability of various designs.(2)
So, like our modern Olympic and football stadiums, cathedrals represent the finest work that people could do. And unlike the sports palaces they are built to last.
As time and laziness permits I will post some notes on the key places we have visited (see links below). My intent is not to tell the history in detail – you can check Wikipedia for that – nor to delve too deeply into the arcane taxonomy of church architecture. What I will do is note the key features that make that particular cathedral unique and worth visiting.
While I have so far referred to cathedrals, and the focus will indeed be on the great medieval ones, this page will also cover interesting churches (not necessarily medieval), synagogues, mosques and temples, and other types of building if the mood strikes me – perhaps even sports stadia!
By the way for those of you not raised in a mainstream religion, a cathedral is the seat of a bishop. The Cathedra (throne) is his/her seat. There are lots of interesting churches that are not cathedrals – e.g. Salisbury has the cathedral, but only a short distance away is St Thomas Beckett which is the parish church and has a great last judgement painting.(3)
The Top Five
And since you asked, the he Top Five cathedrals to see are:
The sixth church in the Top Five is the exception to the rule. Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia is very modern – indeed it won’t be finished until 2025 at the earliest. It deserves inclusion not just because it is a unique vision brilliantly executed at every level from the outline to the smallest details, but it is also the most amazing thing – natural or man-made – that I have seen on this planet so it has to be here.(4)
(1) The portals are the main entrances to a cathedral. Christian cathedrals and churches are traditionally oriented with the East end facing Jerusalem The portals tend to be highly decorated and are typically located on the Western front.
(2) Masons used a lot of trial and error, and a few cathedrals collapsed along the way (Ely,
(3) Last Judgement scenes are always interesting. The artists apparently enjoyed the opportunity to break out of their usual sanctified mode and show nasty demons doing really gruesome things to the damned. Check out the right hand portal on Notre Dame de Paris for a particularly good example.
(4) The header photograph that appears on each page of this site is an image taken near the altar of La Sagrada Familia.